Reports around the disregard for human and labour rights in the production of smartphones and other digital technology have been rife for years. Many of the components used in our devices are reportedly sourced through child labour and inhumane working conditions. The high value of these minerals has also fuelled competition, resulting in conflict involving mass killings and rape as a weapon of war.
All of us who own a PC, phone or other electronic gadget enjoy the benefits of new technologies, but rarely do we spare a thought as to how they are made. Inside many of these electronic devices are components that began life as minerals dug underground, sometimes at a great cost of human dignity.
Miners in countries such as Myanmar, Bolivia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) use children as young as seven who work in perilous conditions, scavenging for minerals in industrial mines and washing and sorting them before they are sold. The minerals travel through a chain of suppliers through Asia and elsewhere to be smelted into metals, and then onto the world at large where they end up in electronics, as well in vehicles and jewelry.
The DRC is home to the deadliest conflict since World War II — in large part because of the international demand for electronic technologies such as smartphones, laptops and the like, that requires minerals found in the land. While the on-going conflict in eastern Congo is a complex crisis involving issues such as tensions over land, rights, and identity, the trade in conflict minerals is one of the most pressing issues and drivers of the conflict.
Competition over “conflict resources” — natural resources extracted in a conflict zone and sold to perpetuate the fighting — has fuelled two decades of conflict in its eastern provinces, including a 1998 to 2003 war that killed more than 5.4 million people. Armed groups in the DRC trade in gold and the 3Ts- tin, tantalum and tungsten.
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